Cubs

10 reasons for optimism as Cubs enter the final two weeks of 2017 season

10 reasons for optimism as Cubs enter the final two weeks of 2017 season

As the Cubs begin their final day off of the regular season, they ride into the last two weeks of 2017 on a serious high.

The Cubs played 20 games in 20 days before their off-day a week ago, but since then, they've won six straight and are a season-high 17 games over .500. They have a four-game lead over the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central and a six-game jump over the St. Louis Cardinals.

That's quite a swing of events after all the panic skirting through the Cubs fanbase at this time last week following a sweep at the hands of the Brewers.

"We're definitely playing at the highest level of mental energy we've played with all year, period," Joe Maddon said Sunday following the Cubs' sweep of the Cardinals. "It's coming at the right time."

I'll say.

The Cubs entered the weekend series with the Cardinals needing a strong showing and turned in an absolutely dominating performance instead.

They're now 11-4 against the Cardinals in 2017, the best record since 2007 against their in-division rivals.

Here are 10 reasons Cubs fans have to count their blessings before the final road trip of the year:

1. Post All-Star Break stars

The Cubs have been on a roll since the All-Star Break, going 40-21 with a +106 run differential:

Which is the norm under Maddon in Chicago, as the Cubs have gone 140-69 in the season's second half over the last three years:

2. The Windy City

Wade Davis is still a perfect 31-for-31 in save chances, but Sunday may have been his closest call yet.

Dexter Fowler — who already homered earlier in the game to account for all three of St. Louis' runs — drove Davis' last pitch into deep center field, causing Davis and Cubs fans everywhere to react in anguish.

But the wind blew it back into play and into the waiting glove of Leonys Martin. 

"I thought it was going to the scoreboard," Davis joked after the game.

Instead of a go-ahead homer, it was the final out and the Cubs were owners of a three-game streak.

3. Starting staff

Jose Quintana made one mistake Sunday, a three-run shot to Fowler in the sixth inning. 

The Cubs' big summer acquisition was one out away from another quality start, but he was also the victim of some shoddy fielding behind him. Kris Bryant made an error and Kyle Schwarber failed to catch a flyball a few batters before Fowler's shot.

Quintana acknowledged he saw Kyle Hendricks' gem Saturday and wanted to go out and deliver his own strong outing.

The Cubs' starters are feeding off each other in a positive way at just the right time.

"We're competing at a pretty good level [as a team]," Davis said. "Our starters have really been carrying us the last 4-5 games. That's really been a big deal."

4. Solidfying the bullpen

The bullpen accounted for nine innings against the Cardinals and did not allow a run. 

Davis and Carl Edwards Jr. appeared in all three games, teaming with Pedro Strop (two appearances) to get 21 outs combined. 

Even Justin Wilson got into the mix, picking up a big strikeout in the only batter he faced Friday, helping swing the momentum in the Cubs' favor. 

This is the time of the year where the bullpen earns their money and the Cubs will need to rely on Davis and Co. heavily with eight games remaining still against the Brewers and Cardinals.

The day off Monday helps add another opportunity for rest for Hector Rondon (elbow) and Koji Uehara (knee, back). 

5. Regaining health

Even with Rondon and Uehara leaving the bullpen a little short, the Cubs have gotten great reports on frontline starter Jake Arrieta, who threw a 42-pitch bullpen Saturday and reportedly felt "grrreat." There is no word yet on when Arrieta will start, but it's possible the Cubs get him back early on this road trip.

Addison Russell, meanwhile, is back in a big way. He reached in all five plate appearances over the weekend, hitting a pinch-hit homer Saturday and collecting a single and three walks Sunday.

Willson Contreras is also showing no ill effects after missing about a month with a hamstring injury. He is hitting .444 with a 1.111 OPS in five games since returning from the DL and Contreras catcher served his one-game suspension Sunday, so he'll be ready to roll from Game 1 of the road trip.

6. Addison's back

Not only is Russell back, but he's already at the top of his game. 

With several slick defensive plays over the weekend, Russell also has not made an out at the plate since Aug. 2, the last game he played before landing on the disabled list with a foot injury. 

"Everything he's doing is looking good," Maddon said. "Great at-bats, no expanding of the zone. A lot like Contreras. Willy did the same thing coming back; he did not expand the strike zone. Addison played really well."

Russell's return also allows for a break for Javy Baez, who has had to play nearly every inning over the last six weeks. And when the two young infielders play at once, the Cubs have a pair of elite level defenders up the middle of the field.

The weekend served as a reminder to the baseball world how much the Cubs have missed Russell's presence this season and with two weeks left, his return to form couldn't have come at a better time.

7. Cardinals faltering

The Cardinals have had several moments over the course of the season where they looked down and out but they were simply overmatched in the three-game set at Wrigley Field. They threw their three best starting pitchers — Carlos Martinez, Lance Lynn and Michael Wacha — and still couldn't pull out a victory in a crucial series.

The Cardinals are still within striking distance at six games back in the division and they host the Cubs for four games next week, but with just 13 games remaining on the schedule, time is fast running out for the Redbirds.

8. Their fate is in their own hands

The Cubs don't have to do too much scoreboard watching. They constantly talk about how their main focus is taking care of their own business and if they do so in the final two weeks, they'll have accomplished their first 2017 goal: Make the playoffs.

The Cubs don't have to rely on anybody else for their fate and can put away the Brewers next week with a strong showing (and then that four-game set in St. Louis immediately following). 

9. All hands on deck

The Cubs got 19 players in both Friday and Sunday's games and played 15 different guys Saturday as Maddon didn't hesitate to use his full complement of weapons with the expanded September rosters.

Maddon loves when a lot of guys get involved because it gives them all a feeling of "ownership" in the victories.

The Cubs have remarkable depth on their roster and there are still questions that have to be answered before any sort of postseason roster (assuming they make it) can be constructed. These last few weeks are giving Maddon and Co. a glimpse of what everybody can do.

10. State of the offense

The Cubs lineup has been relentless over the last week, scoring 55 runs in six games. None of the Cardinals' top three starters could make it out of the sixth inning, with Lynn managing to get just 12 outs Sunday.

The Cubs now lead the NL in runs scored and any questions doubters had about their ability to score runs off championship-caliber pitching have been put to rest for at least a little while.

Would trading Kyle Schwarber begin to solve pitching issues that run much deeper than Chris Bosio?

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USA TODAY

Would trading Kyle Schwarber begin to solve pitching issues that run much deeper than Chris Bosio?

The Cubs now apparently believe they are a stronger organization without Chris Bosio, firing a pitching coach known for his strong convictions, brutal honesty and bottom-line results in a move that doesn’t seem like an actual solution.

Hiring Jim Hickey – who has a good reputation from his years with the Tampa Bay Rays, a close friendship with Joe Maddon and what looks like a slam-dunk interview lined up for Monday – might make the manager feel more comfortable and less isolated.

But the new-voice/different-direction spin doesn’t fundamentally address the pitching issues facing a team that needs to replace 40 percent of the rotation and find an established closer and has zero expectations those answers will come from within the farm system.

This is an operation that won a seven-game World Series last year without a homegrown player throwing a single pitch.     

If the Cubs can say thanks for the memories and dump “Boz,” what about “Schwarbs?”

Advancing to the National League Championship Series in three straight seasons doesn’t happen without Bosio or Kyle Schwarber. But the fastest way for the Cubs to dramatically improve their pitching staff isn’t finding someone else who thinks it’s important to throw strikes. It could mean breaking up The Core and severing another emotional attachment.   

Theo Epstein saw Schwarber play for Indiana University and used the Fenway Park frame of reference, envisioning him as a combination of David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia with his left-handed power and energizer personality.

Epstein wasn’t the only Cubs official to develop a man-crush on Schwarber, but he’s the only one with ultimate control over baseball operations. Epstein’s style isn’t pounding the table as much as the ability to frame questions in the draft room, gather as many opinions as possible before the trade deadline and at the winter meetings, trying to form a consensus.

“I will say that it’s really an organization-wide evaluation of this player, but I’m not skirting responsibility,” Epstein said. “I’ll happily endorse him as the type of player that we want to win with here at the Cubs, and have won with. I don’t know, the fact that he hit 30 bombs in a bad year is a good start.

“But power is not everything. I think he fell into this year becoming more of a slugger and less of a hitter than he really is. It’s important for him to get his identity back as a dangerous hitter. Honestly, I think we feel he has the potential to be an all-around hitter on the level of an Anthony Rizzo. When he reaches his prime, that’s what he could be.”

Where will that be? As a designated hitter in the American League? That’s obvious speculation, but Schwarber has improved as an outfield defender – his strong throw at Dodger Stadium led to another NLCS Maddon Moment where the manager compared the Buster Posey Rule to the Chicago soda tax.      

A 43-45 record at the All-Star break also exposed some of the weaknesses in the clubhouse and downsides to Maddon’s methods. The Cubs flipped a switch in the second half, got hot in September and had the guts to beat the Washington Nationals in the playoffs. But that doesn’t completely wipe away the concerns about a group that at times seemed too casual and unfocused and didn’t play with enough edge. For better or worse, Schwarber approaches the game like a blitzing linebacker.

“He’s got a certain toughness and certain leadership qualities that are hard to find,” Epstein said, “and that we don’t necessarily have in surplus, in abundance, running around in this clubhouse, in this organization.

“A certain energy and grit and ability to bring people together – that’s important and we rely on it. But the biggest thing is his bat. We think he’s the type of offensive player that you build around, along with a couple other guys like him.”

Maddon would never admit it, but was the Schwarber leadoff experiment a mistake?

“I’ll judge that one based on the results and say yeah,” Epstein said. “I think we can talk about the process that went into it. Or in an alternate universe: Does it pan out? But those are just words. It didn’t work.

“Everything that went into Kyle’s really surprising and difficult first half of the season, we should look to correct, because that shouldn’t happen. He’s a way better hitter than that. What he did after coming back from Iowa proves it.”

In the same way that Maddon should own what happens with the next pitching coach, Epstein will ultimately have to decide Schwarber’s future.

Schwarber didn’t complain or pout when he got sent down to Triple-A Iowa this summer, finishing with 30 homers, a .782 OPS, a .211 batting average and a 30.9 strikeout percentage.    

Trading Schwarber would mean selling lower and take another team having the same gut instincts the Cubs did in the 2014 draft – and offering the talented, controllable starting pitcher that sometimes seems like a unicorn.

Is Schwarber still the legend from last year’s World Series? An all-or-nothing platoon guy? An intriguing trade chip? A franchise player? Eventually, the Cubs are going to find out.

“We have to look to do everything we can,” Epstein said, “and more importantly he has to look to do everything he can to get him to a point where he’s consistently the quality hitter and tough out and dangerous bat in the middle of the lineup that we know he can be.

“He wasn’t for the first half of this year – and he knows it and he feels awful about it. He worked his tail off to get back to having a pretty darn good second half and getting some big hits for us down the stretch.”

And then the offseason was only hours old by the time the Cubs showed they will be keeping an open mind about everything this winter, not afraid to make big changes.

Jake Arrieta shaved his beard again and he keeps looking younger

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USA TODAY

Jake Arrieta shaved his beard again and he keeps looking younger

It's become a tradition that Jake Arrieta shaves his beard after the season ends.

The 31-year-old did it again days after the Cubs were eliminated from the 2017 postseason, and it's still a sight we'll never be used to seeing.

Check it out:

Weird, right?

Here's how he looked following the Cubs' World Series win in 2016:

And again in 2015:

It's crazy how much younger he looks.